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Person of Interest: Monta Ellis
By: timbersfan , 12:09 AM GMT on March 15, 2012
Monta Ellis is having the worst season of his career. The We Believe Monta — the second-round draft pick who got into the lane with the ease of Iverson and converted seemingly impossible layups at a 60 percent clip — is a distant memory. This Monta Ellis is still putting up 22 points and six assists per game, but his tanking shooting percentages and his always-questionable shot selection have cemented Ellis's reputation as an inefficient gunner. As such, prior to Tuesday night's trade that sent Monta, Ekpe Udoh, and Kwame Brown to the Bucks for Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson, we had been hearing all the usual questions about Monta Ellis. Is Monta Ellis a winner? Does he make his teammates better? Can you win a championship with Monta Ellis as your primary scorer?
The answer to the last question is a flat-out no. But its definitiveness should not stand in as the answer to the other questions about Monta Ellis. The high-scoring guard on a bad team who takes a lot of inefficient shots has become basketball's pariah (for the latest updates, see Anthony, Carmelo) but that wave of basketball judgment doesn't really tell us much about how said high-scoring guard would fare in a different situation. The We Believe Monta Ellis was arguably the most-explosive scorer on two Warriors teams that won 42 and 47 games. Playing next to Baron Davis and a fun cabal of long-range shooters, Monta's primary role was to get into the lane and score. He did this better than anyone in the league. In February of '08, he became only the ninth guard to ever shoot over 60 percent over the course of a month and posted a 53.1 percent rate over the course of the season, the best rate by a perimeter player in the past five years.1 After re-signing with the Warriors in the summer of '08, Monta got into a mysterious motor scooter accident, missed 57 games, and has arguably never been the same.
Which is too bad. Prior to the scooter accident, Monta's contract — six years, $66 million — felt like a bargain for a 22-year-old well on his way to becoming Iverson-lite. The Warriors had just shipped a petulant Baron Davis off to the Clippers and were looking to rebuild around Monta and Andris Biedrins, who signed his own six-year, $54 million deal in the offseason. Instead, Monta ruined his ankle, DeMarcus Nelson became the only undrafted free agent to ever start on Opening Night, then-rookie Anthony Randolph twisted himself into a lovable but ultimately useless ball of nerves and energy, and Don Nelson kicked off his two-year cruise to Hawaii. The Warriors have been terrible ever since.
Tuesday night's trade to the Bucks was the culmination of two and a half years of frustration and should provide some closure for the Warriors, who were never really able to answer the question: Can Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry coexist? But this question was largely made moot by the hiring of Mark Jackson and assistant coach Michael Malone. Since Jackson got to town and began preaching defense, the Warriors have gutted their roster in search of a center to anchor Malone's system. After missing out on Tyson Chandler, the Warriors, who owe Biedrins and David Lee a combined $22 million a year, amnestied Charlie Bell to make an offer for restricted free agent DeAndre Jordan (who quickly re-signed with the Clippers.) Still desperate for a defensive center to play alongside Lee, Monta, and Curry, the Warriors signed Kwame Brown for $7 million.
With Andrew Bogut, the Warriors finally have their defensive center. Unfortunately, he's likely to miss the remainder of the season. It's pretty clear at this point that the Warriors front office got caught up in the dogged pursuit of two basketball truths. The first: You need a great defensive center to win a championship. The second: High-volume, low-percentage shooting guards are antithetical to winning basketball.
The problem? The Warriors' quest for an efficient, defensive-minded team came at nearly every conceivable cost. They burned their amnesty; they eroded their reputation with a fan base that expected the new ownership to be able to sign big free agents; they cut ties with the promising Ekpe Udoh; they filled their cap space with Steven Jackson's $9.25 million per year. They even relieved themselves of Kwame's $7 million expiring contract. Perhaps most important, they shipped off one of the 10 most gifted scorers in the league; a guy who, for two straight seasons, had been playing in the worst possible of situations.
I understand the need for a new ownership and coach to change the identity of the team. But when every move comes with a crippling tax, when your Tyson Chandler dreams devolve into an injured Andrew Bogut, maybe it's better to be patient and make sure that you've properly assessed your best assets.
In his best season, Monta shot jumpers on 59 percent of his possessions and took it to the rim roughly 37 percent of the time. The gap between those numbers has been steadily widening. This year, Monta is shooting jumpers on 62 percent of his possessions and is taking it to the rack at around a 25 percent rate. Mark Jackson has tried to plant Monta in the post, where he's been scoring at a remarkably efficient rate,2 but it's hard to see a guard of Monta's size lasting for too long in the painted area.
All these numbers point to a once-electric dynamo who has lost a step and now relies on a mid-range and post game to get his buckets. But while there's no doubt that Monta has changed his approach, I don't think it's because he's incapable of resurrecting the We Believe Monta Ellis. Rather, his decline was more the result of a shift in his role. The '08 Warriors, coached by Don Nelson, ran the court relentlessly. Once Nelson and Davis left town, Monta was tasked with running the point and sharing the backcourt with Stephen Curry, another combo guard who needs to have the ball in his hands.
Here's the last, yet arguably most important, Monta Ellis statistic. He has led the league in Minutes Per Game in each of the last two seasons. Those who point to his efficiency problems and his steadily declining shooting percentages should also adjust for the number of times he's been forced to take a shot at the end of the 24-second clock, the number of times he's had to carry the scoring load while playing with D-Leaguers, and the herculean effort that's required to play his style of basketball for 40 minutes a night. Once players start settling for jumpers, it's nearly impossible to get them flying at the rim again. So yes, the Monta Ellis who shot 60 percent over the course of an entire month is probably not heading toward Milwaukee. But having watched Monta for much of his career, it's also clear that he hasn't lost a step as much as grown frustrated with a system and a franchise that no longer cater to his unique talents.
Next year, the Warriors will presumably start the season with some mix of Bogut, Curry, Lee, Klay Thompson, Stephen Jackson (nobody else is going to take on that contract), Biedrins, and their selection from this year's stacked draft class. Who "scores the basketball" on that team? And if the idea is to build a team that can grind out 88-84 wins, how are the Warriors going to do that with defensive liabilities like Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and David Lee playing big minutes?
Curry, despite his persistent ankle problems, was always going to win out in the end. Which is understandable — he's the more marketable star and plays the point a bit more effectively than Monta. But the question of whether or not Ellis and Curry could co-exist in the backcourt was never satisfactorily answered.
With no time to practice and a diluted pool of talent, this season has seen some particularly brutal stretches of offense. Of the teams in contention (term used loosely), the Thunder (James Harden), the Mavericks (Jason Terry), the Clippers (Mo Williams), Philadelphia (Lou Williams), Memphis (O.J. Mayo), and Denver (Andre Miller) all have bench players who can create shots for themselves. Coincidentally, Chicago, Miami, the Spurs, and the Lakers — four of the top six teams in the league — do not. It's a bit of a fallacy, though, to point to the Bulls and/or Miami's record and conclude that a team does not have to have a microwave/bench scorer/irrational confidence guy to win a championship. Last year, the Mavericks had Jason Terry and J.J. Barea — two guys who could carry the offense for large stretches of the Finals and were able to swing games against the Heat's second unit. The 2010 Lakers championship team had Lamar Odom, the rare big man who can create his own shot. The 2008 Celtics championship team had Eddie House and James Posey in those roles. Critics can point to LeBron's fourth-quarter meltdowns as the reason why Miami didn't win last year, but if House and Miller had given them a bigger contribution off the bench, Miami wouldn't have been in all those close games.
Microwave scorers have become an undervalued commodity in the league, mostly because they're only useful to contending teams. And had he been traded to a real playoff contender, Monta would have potentially swung the balance of power, especially in the Eastern Conference. Had Orlando been able to land him, the Magic would have had a legitimate shot at beating the Bulls in a seven-game series. For those who just scoffed, remember that Orlando beat Chicago last week, mostly because the Bulls' second-team offense mostly revolves around setting up shots for Kyle Korver. Had Monta gone to the Bulls, they would have had a better shot at unseating Miami, who, despite Norris Cole's emergence, still haven't found someone to take over when the Big Three are having an off night.
Instead, to nearly everyone's surprise, Monta ended up with the Bucks, playing alongside Brandon Jennings, who had to promise to shoot over 40 percent this season. Milwaukee's season, despite its current position as the eighth seed in the East, will not hinge on whether Monta Ellis can carry the team through scoring droughts. And while there are legitimate questions to raise about playing two smallish guards who don't shoot particularly efficiently, Monta and Jennings will instantly be the fastest backcourt in the league. Baron Davis never shot over 44 percent from the floor in Golden State, but he engineered the fast pace that allowed Monta to flourish beside him. I'm certainly not going to say that Brandon Jennings will ever be the distributor that Baron was for the Warriors, but, as Chuck always says, winning teams have always been able to establish the pace of the game.
For last week's MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Rafe Bartholomew — a fellow editor here at Grantland — and I began preparing a paper called "Montametrics." We wanted to create a system that could properly quantify pretty much every cool thing that happened on a basketball court. We came up with stats like "Impossible Shotability" and tweaked "True Shooting Percentage" to count the number of times a given player could make you say, "He's the truth." Our muse, of course, was Monta, who does at least three or four Montametric things a game. Our paper, which we never wrote or presented, was mostly an attempt at humor, but the underlying impulse came from our general frustration with the myopia of efficiency ratings that bury valuable scorers who might be stuck in bad situations. Again, Monta provided the perfect model.
Yes, Monta Ellis has become a less efficient scorer over the past three years. But in those three years, he has gone through three coaches, played way too many minutes with almost no supporting cast, and has had to endure endless trade rumors. When you watch him play up close and in person, he still displays extended glimpses of the We Believe Monta — the speed, the quick hands, the jaw-dropping crossovers, and the impossible shots are all still there. Before the Warriors began imploding around him,3 that skill set created one of the most efficient, exciting scorers in the league.
That Monta is still there. But like all players of his caliber — second-tier guys who can't be the best player on a championship team — he just needs to be put in the right situation. Milwaukee might not be the best fit, but it's better than always being the odd man out in Golden State's blind charge toward a new identity.